Recently I travelled in Morocco where I became acutely aware of cultural differences, some significant.
The culture of bargaining for items was foreign and discomforting to me yet occurs in most purchasing interactions there. For the seller there is a game of wanting to make a sale and getting a good price. For me, as the buyer, I have little idea of the value of something I am buying and I didn’t want to be rude by offering a low price. What I noticed is that both buyer and seller are free to walk away. Thankfully, many of the merchants there would say, ‘Just smile. It’s ok not to buy’.
Another significant difference was the language.
Despite listening carefully, memorizing and practicing, I could not recall people’s names. The combination of letters and the sounds were ‘foreign’. Many names I hadn’t heard before; Karim, Khalid, Ahmet, Khadija. For the first time, I really ‘got’ how important it is to use a number of methods in learning something new. I would listen, write down the name, then practice. Yet, I was still unsure of remembering the name and how to pronounce it well, and this was happening with people I was interacting with over several days. Embarrassing.
I decided to take a lesson in Moroccan Arabic – a two-hour language lesson taught by Mustapha the waiter at a local café (and an honour grad in English language).
He was a great teacher. He put aside the script and asked each of us what we wanted to learn and why. I wanted to know what people were saying to me, to be able to ask for tea and coffee, and especially buy goat cheese without salt, as well as recall names. My travel companion wanted to learn and understand both the formal and everyday greetings, and the third in the group, wanted to learn Moroccan Arabic which was different from Egyptian Arabic where she had lived for a year. Mustapha had us practice by role-playing with each other:
How are you going?
I’m good, and you?
My name is Diana, what is your name?
Two coffees please, no sugar.
It’s been nice to meet you.
Thank you for the delicious food.
With four days practice I had mastered the basics. To my great delight, this small effort gained great results. By listening, writing the words down, reading and practicing some more, we were able to initiate conversations and respond to people greeting us. We discovered the formal greeting and enquiry was an entry into conversations and to great generosity. As we spoke, people warmed up to us and an extra connection was made.
What have you found to be effective in making connections when you enter groups with cultures different from ones you are familiar with?
© Diana Jones